An author of legal thrillers and a fantasy trilogy was accused Thursday of bilking women out of millions of dollars after meeting them through an online Jewish dating service.
Mitchell Gross, whose books include the suspense story "Circle of Lies," duped at least two women into investing about $4.4 million in a sham company he set up, using some of the money to buy expensive artwork, a luxury car and a golf club membership, federal prosecutors said.
The wire fraud and money laundering charges he faces could carry a prison sentence of decades behind bars, according to authorities.
Gross, a 61-year-old author who writes under the pen names Mitchell Graham and Douglas Alan, pleaded not guilty. He has turned out at least a half dozen books, but told a judge he only had limited funds.
At a brief court appearance Thursday, Gross said he couldn't afford an attorney because he only had $2,000 in cash and no money in any other accounts. His court-appointed attorney Judy Fleming declined to comment on the case.
Authorities said Gross began a romantic relationship with a woman identified in court documents as "R.J." They met on a site around June 2006 and told her he made a lot of money by investing with a broker named "Michael Johnson" who was employed by "The Merrill Company," the records show.
"R.J." called the broker to talk over the investments, but it was actually Gross speaking in a disguised voice on the other line, prosecutors said. "R.J." wired close to $3 million to an account she believed belong to the company but actually did not exist, prosecutors said. Gross concealed the scheme by sending her phony tax forms and account statements, they added.
Then investigators said they discovered he was using the woman's funds to repay an ex-girlfriend, identified as "J.S." She was duped into investing $1.4 million with the phony firm, prosecutors said.
Federal prosecutors didn't identify the names of the victims in the indictment, but some details of the allegations have emerged in civil court documents.
Robbie Johnson of Florida filed a lawsuit against Gross in March 2008 claiming she met him on a Jewish Internet dating site. Soon, she said, he was falsely telling her that famed director Steven Spielberg had optioned his books for films that would feature Pierce Brosnan and Kirsten Dunst. He also told her he fell in love with her, and that he was eager to move to Florida to live with her, the lawsuit said.
They took vacations together to Japan, Panama and Brazil, and Johnson hosted a "Meet Mitch" party to introduce him to her friends. She even turned her son's bedroom into an office so he could move in, the complaint said.
But after he got the money — about $2.95 million — he started making excuses to avoid spending time with her, and delayed moving in together, the lawsuit said. The relationship ended in March 2008, when she discovered the account she was pumping money into was set up under Gross' name.
The court issued a settlement order in June 2008 that ordered Gross to pay Johnson more than $3.2 million — a sum that is now about $4 million with interest, said her lawyers, who applauded the criminal investigation.
"I'm not surprised to see the federal charges," said the woman's attorney, Clay O'Daniel. "I figured it was a matter of time."
Her other counsel, Richard Garbarini, said his client is "ecstatic that justice is being done."
Prosecutors, meanwhile, said anyone else who believes they were victimized should contact authorities. U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates warned that the Internet makes it simpler "for those bent on defrauding others to find their next victim."
Gross, who lives in metro Atlanta, has written six books under the Mitchell Graham pen name, including a three-part science fiction series and a legal thriller called "Dead Docket." Court records also say he wrote another book, the suspense thriller "Circle of Lies," under the pen name Douglas Alan.
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